Thursday, 9 December 2010

Can Leadership Be Taught?

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Before you begin reading this post or listening to the audio version, I must warn you it is not for everyone.  If you are someone who cannot bear a politically incorrect word or if you live life well within your own comfort zone, what you’re about to hear may very well offend you. 

The words of this post will test your dedication to becoming a RESILIENT person.  What is a resilient person?  Quite simply, it’s someone who is on the way to becoming a true human being, to exploring and living out the full potential of a being created in the divine image.  And every resilient person is, in fact, a warrior, because no one can overcome the barriers that stand between mediocrity and resilience without great courage. 

Every resilient person is also a leader.  First and foremost they are leaders of their own lives – they know who they are, what they stand for and where they’re going.   And it's because and only because they know these things, that they’re fit to lead others. 

Why is leadership so critically important for you?  Because it’s impossible to become a resilient person or to help others attain resilience otherwise.  Until you develop the qualities of a leader – on fire with an inspiring vision, living by noble principles, genuinely caring for others and dedicated to brutal honesty in all things – you’re as handicapped in your pursuit of a better life as a three-legged horse would be at the Kentucky Derby. 

The Few:

How do we recognize such people?  If you personally know even one or two such people, you’re truly blessed, because they are very few and far between.  You’ll recognize them because they will inspire and motivate you without even trying.  They’ll make you feel glad to be alive and enthusiastic about the challenges to come.  You’ll notice they serve a purpose far greater than their own self-interest, they live by principles rather than their own convenience and they can be relied upon one hundred percent of the time to give and demand brutal honesty and truth.  That’s why the cowards who surround them call them disruptive and “loose cannons”, considering them dangerous and inconvenient.

At least, that’s what they said about people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and many others.    

Of course, the few are “dangerous”.  You see, the few have no interest in the artificial rules or the polite lies that all of society wallows in.  They’re completely committed to what’s real.  They have no interest in comfort, in playing it safe, or in avoiding the tough decisions.  No, they’ll jump in with both feet, knowing that audacity will always rule the day and snatch the victory. 

The few don’t waste their energy trying to perpetuate ossified institutions or obsolete social structures and decorum.  Gandhi didn't have the social standing to lead India to independence, nor did he have any interest in perpetuating the social evil  of untouchability.  The few are far too focused on the magnificent possibility they see in their mind’s eye to bother with such things.  And this passion that enflames their very souls is contagious – you can’t talk to one of these people about their passion without coming away with some of that flame yourself… if, of course, they think you’re worthy to hear about it.    

The Many:

The many are quite different.  Why do we call them “the many”?  Simply because at least ninety-five percent of the people around you fall into this category.  Now don’t get me wrong – the “many” can be perfectly nice people.  They can be your neighbors, your colleagues, members of your church and community and you can be very happy with them.  Yet however pleasant your social interactions with them may be, they are not leaders, no matter how prominent they may appear.

Despite this, they constitute well over ninety-five percent of the so-called “leaders” in our society – our politicians, our managers and bosses, and the leaders of our religious institutions.  And that’s only natural since, unlike true leaders, they actively seek the limelight. 

Why is that?  Ultimately, it’s because they live for themselves, not for any higher purpose (despite any claims they might make to the contrary).  They’re not dedicated to any great and inspiring vision, which explains why, as “leaders”, they’re totally unable to inspire their subordinates to follow them.  Part of the reason is because they consider themselves superior to their underlings, they value control over collaboration and stability over results.  They’re really just functionaries, rather than leaders and, to them, the process is the product. 

They live well within their comfort zones and see preserving the status quo as a sacred duty, even when the status quo is a total betrayal of the principles they make such a fuss about adhering to.  But that’s something they’ll never admit to themselves, let alone to you.  So life among the many leaves you swimming in a sea of lies and half-truths so bewildering it will have you questioning your own sanity.

The Crisis:

In the life of every institution, community, group or team there always comes a crisis.  And crisis is most useful because it lays bare for all to see who is willing to call a spade a spade, to stand up and be counted, rather than cower in the corner and submit to a lie for the sake of personal convenience.

That’s why it’s so often said that you only know who your real friends are when things go wrong. 

That’s what makes crisis such a great gift – it sorts out who’s who with all the accuracy of the “sorting hat” in Harry Potter.  It also explains why the literal translation of the word “crisis” is so bang on – you see, the ancient Greek word “Krisis” means “judgment”, and every crisis is precisely that.  It divides the resilient from the weak, the courageous from the cowards, the leaders from the functionaries and the visionaries from those who play it safe.  

Of course, in rare cases a crisis can be the catalyst that propels a person to leave the many and join the few.  The Lord of the Rings is a tale about exactly that: Frodo and his fellow Hobbits did not have to take the one ring back to Mordor at great personal risk, and we watch their inner debates unfold as they're tempted to rejoin the "many" by giving up and going back to the Shire.  Perhaps it's the sure and certain knowledge that there won't be an Shire left unless they persevere that saves them.  

The Myth:

Of course, our governments, corporations and educational systems don’t want you to know all that and the reason is quite simple.  Just ask yourself who runs those institutions…  Instead, they tell you that anyone can become a leader through training, by acquiring the right “skill sets”. 

In fact, that’s totally erroneous.  The many are not the many because they lack certain life skills.  The many are the many because on a level deep enough to remain hidden from the world and usually from themselves, the many are unwilling to put their well-being, their livelihood and ultimately their lives on the line.  They have settled down to live with the mediocrity, the political correctness and the polite lies that pervade our everyday experience.  Yes, they may be raising fine children, donating to charity and volunteering their time, but when the crisis comes, you’ll see them for who they are.  And no amount of training will change that.  

Take the typical corporate manager.  Training in leadership, change management, team building or whatever else can no more turn this person into a leader than it can change their racial DNA from Caucasian to Negro or Oriental to Caucasian.  You see, leadership, like resilience itself, is not primarily a skill set.  The “many” can never become leaders by learning “skills”; they can only become leaders by doing one thing…

Repenting.  That’s right.  Until such a person decides that personal integrity means more to them than life itself, they cannot be taught.  You see, the fundamental dividing line between the few and the many, between the leaders and the functionaries, is precisely a matter of character, of virtue. 

The many can think of lots of things to live for, but only the few believe that there are some things worth dying for. 

In the words of Star Trek’s fictional Klingon general Chang, so ably portrayed by the great Shakespearean actor Christopher Plumber, as he addresses a group of elite recruits:

“You have surpassed your peers to earn a place within this distinguished hall.  Yet I tell you now, this is not enough.  In the days to come, you will be tested, well beyond your current limitations.  I am not interested in the names of your fathers, nor in your family’s lineage.  What I am interested in is your breaking point.  How will you conduct yourselves in battle?  How far will you go to preserve your honor, to fulfill your duty?  These are simple questions that will decide the fate of our empire.”

The crises you will inevitably face in daily life - at home, at work, in the society around you – these will test you beyond what you think you can handle.  And every one of these crises will reveal one thing – whether you belong to the few or the many.  Your social status, your previous achievements are irrelevant.  Will you live with integrity or won’t you?  Will you boldly proclaim the truth or indulge the lies of the many around you?  Which will it be?  You can’t fudge this – it’s one or the other.  This is the battle.  Will you preserve your honor and fulfill your duty to yourself and those who depend on you or will you not? 

And it is not only your own fate on the line, it is ultimately the fate of your country and your whole civilization as well. 

The Challenge:

Several years ago, a great financial scandal broke out in my Church, engulfing hundreds of communities throughout the United States and Canada.  My bishop here in Canada had the temerity to stand in front of his people week after week and proclaim that nothing was wrong, that there were simply some “administrative difficulties”.  By doing so he willingly participated in the cover up of a felony – the embezzlement of some two million dollars that had been earmarked for victims of 9/11, the Beslan massacre, the Armenian earthquake and similar tragic events.  He also publicly besmirched the reputations of several people who were demanding an open investigation into the financial scandal, calling them “trouble-makers”.

Yet the majority of our people were not outraged or overly concerned.  The “many” never are until it’s much too late.  The “many” are like sheep that an unscrupulous “leader” can lead straight over a cliff.  Only the “few” took action, often risking their status, their reputations and their livelihoods to tell the truth in the midst of endless lies, to demand openness in the midst of a cover-up and justice in the midst of criminality at the highest levels.  As for myself, I was only marginalized and effectively booted out of my own parish for speaking out.  Others suffered much more and for much longer.  In the end we were vindicated, though not necessarily reinstated or recompensed. 

Events like this are distressingly common – they’re taking place all around you and you have a choice to make.  Will you tell the truth, live by your principles, and dedicate yourself and your energies to working toward a noble, inspiring and better future, or will you choose the easy way out? 

Only you can answer that question.  Behold, I have laid the challenge before you.  Or rather, the challenge is constantly before you; I’ve simply brought it to your attention.  Time to make a decision…

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

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